Upper James River Canoe Trip – west of the Blue Ridge in Virginia’s Upper Valley
Trip Log: 35 miles on the upper James River, 2 overnight campsites, 24 rapids (18 class 1 and 6 class 2), clear, cool mountain water, tree lined banks
Historic Sites: C & O RR and the remains of the old James River and Kanawha Canal.
My friend and I rented a 16 ft. Old Towne Canoe from an outfitter (put outfitter name/website here in parentheses) in Buchanan, VA (Botetourt County). They provided a good map of the river, pre-trip discussion of how to approach the class 2 rapids, and a shuttle to the put in near Irongate (just south of Clifton Forge, where the Jackson and the Cowpasture rivers come together to form the James). Their reasonable fee included access to their two well-located, well-setup campsites in the river’s floodplain. We planned to travel “light,” but ended up with a stuffed canoe – five full dry bags and a big water jug.
We started on a cloudy day with light drizzle and paddled about 8 miles to the first campsite. The campsite even had brand new wall tents set up. The weather cleared the next day, and we paddled 17 miles through incredible scenery with trees, mountains, and wildlife the whole distance. The serenity was interrupted periodically by some challenging rapids. We did not capsize but did get “wedged” on rocks a few times. No problem though, we just stepped out and freed the canoe. The third day, the weather was perfect, and we encountered 3 challenging class 2s before arriving back in Buchanan. We only passed two small boats fishing in the river. Otherwise, we had the river “to ourselves.”
One surprise for me being from the Virginia’s coastal region was to see so many familiar birds’ way up in the mountains. There were numerous eagles, blue herons, egrets, cormorants, and even a few ospreys along this freshwater river. The stretch of river is known for good fishing, especially small-mouth bass, and with all this fish-eating avian-life, it must be loaded with fish. We also spotted plenty of deer and turtles.
The banks of the upper James are relatively uninhabited – only a few cottages – although, behind the trees we could see lots of pasture land. The trees are predominantly sycamores and oaks with some ash and poplars. The scenery includes old bridge trestles and canal remains. Some of the stonework looks to be early 19th century. When the railroads made the canal obsolete after the Civil War, the tracks were laid down on the former canal towpath. The CSX tracks wind along the river, but are well screened by the trees, so you only know they are there when a train passes and its whistle blows. The last night of the trip, the clear sky made for an incredible star show.
My friend and I are septuagenarians, i.e., if we can do this trip, anybody can. The water will be higher in the spring, but the outfitter seemed to think it would still be a “low-risk” situation. The river may not quite be what the Native Americans would have seen when they inhabited this landscape, but I think it is close. The trip is well worth a journey to the headwaters of the James.